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California decriminalizes prostitution for minors after Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills to aid trafficking victims

A juvenile appears before Judge Catherine Pratt in Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court for human trafficking at the Compton Courthouse. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)
A juvenile appears before Judge Catherine Pratt in Succeeding Through Achievement and Resilience (STAR) Court for human trafficking at the Compton Courthouse. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed more than half a dozen bills that decriminalize prostitution and increase protections for young trafficking victims in court amid growing efforts in California to help children and young adults swept into the trade of forced sex and labor.

Among the bills passed were laws that would prohibit the disclosure of victims' personal information, provide victims' services to trafficking witnesses and allow minors under age 16 to testify through closed-circuit televisions in certain cases.

But also approved were hotly contested bills that would decriminalize prostitution and allow human trafficking victims to vacate prior convictions and seal their records.

Senate Bill 1322, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), make the crimes of solicitation and loitering with intent to commit prostitution misdemeanors inapplicable to children younger than 18. It also allows law enforcement to take sexually exploited children into temporary custody -- only if leaving them unattended would pose an immediate threat to their health or safety. 

Still pending is Senate Bill 1129, authored by Bill Monning (D-Carmel), which would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for specified prostitution offenses.

Legislation to curb human trafficking was a prominent issue at the state Capitol this session, as prosecutors and advocates in recent years have pushed the issue to the political forefront. Most of the proposals have focused on the trade of forced sex and reflect a cultural shift in the approach to prostitution that aims to divert victims forced into the industry away from the criminal justice system.

Brown in 2014 signed legislation placing sex trafficking victims without legal guardians under the authority of the dependency system, which centers on caring for abused and neglected children. And SB 1322 and SB 1129 drew the support of a large coalition of advocates who said the legislation was the next step in proving a better path to social services for children and teens forced into prostitution.

But opponents argued the state lacks the network of social services to protect them. Vulnerable minors, they said, often don’t see themselves as victims, run away from unsecured shelters and remain tied to their traffickers through complicated psychological and emotional bonds.

This card has been updated to correct that a decision on SB 1129 was pending as of Monday. It was signed into law Tuesday.

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